How Can I Tell Braxton Hicks from Labor Contractions?

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Braxton Hicks

Imagine it’s your third trimester and you’re walking through the grocery store. Suddenly, your abdomen tightens, squeezing hard enough to make you catch your breath. When you put your hand to your belly, it’s taut as a drum. After 20 or 30 seconds, the contraction ends. Your mind is racing, wondering if this is the beginning of your labor or just a false alarm.

Braxton Hicks contractions, sometimes also called “false labor,” are uterine contractions that are common in the second and third trimesters (see why they are called “Braxton Hicks” here). They’re not labor, but they are one way your body prepares for the big day. Like true labor, your uterus contracts, which can be uncomfortable. Most women report Braxton Hicks as a squeezing sensation, rather than a painful one. It’s also possible for these practice contractions to be intense enough to feel “real” to new or even seasoned moms. They’re often shorter than a true labor contraction, lasting less than 30 seconds. Again, there’s enough variation that plenty of women may experience Braxton Hicks contractions that last as long as a labor contraction. There isn’t always a clear difference, based on one contraction, between Braxton Hicks and the real deal.

So what’s an expectant mom to do? Get ready to head to the hospital every time a contraction hits? Of course not! For one thing, labor is almost never like it appears on the movies. You’ll likely have time to kill during labor, rather than have to speed to the hospital. Waiting will also reveal whether you really are in labor.

Labor contractions get stronger and closer together over time. You can time them and predict when the next one will come. And nothing makes them go away. You can drink water, take a walk or lie down, or take a hot shower without throwing off those steady labor contractions. The sensation often wraps around your front and back, and can feel wavelike. Other signs you’ll meet your baby soon are noticing bloody mucus when you use the bathroom, or feeling your water break.

Braxton Hicks contractions, on the other hand, are much more sporadic. You might have several in quick succession and none for the rest of the day. They might come every hour all morning and then disappear or change frequency. The feeling is usually concentrated on your belly, rather than wrapping around your lower back. Dehydration can increase Braxton Hicks contractions, so take note if you feel them more after you finish exercising. Try drinking a tall glass of water and resting for a few minutes if you feel a contraction. If none follow, your uterus was just practicing.

There’s a wide range of what’s considered a normal number of Braxton Hicks contractions. Your doctor may ask you to call if you feel more than a certain number in one hour. If contractions are painful or you’re not sure if it’s labor, call your OB, especially if you’re not at 37 weeks pregnant yet. They can assess what’s going on and offer some peace of mind.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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